Thunder from Tibet

Every so often, between the time a book leaves its publisher and the time it reaches its readers, events occur that change the ways it can be read. Such is the case with Pico Iyer’s account of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of Tibet. The eruption of major protests in March in the former mountain kingdom has rendered Iyer’s gentle study of spirituality in the global age one that is less likely now to be seen as an inquiring portrait of a major thinker of our times than to be scanned for any sign of political prescience or treasured for the recollection of an innocence since lost. Few predicted the intensity of recent events inside Tibet, nor can anyone now be certain of their outcome.

On the afternoon of March 10, the forty-ninth anniversary of the failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959—Tibet had come under the control of the People’s Republic of China following the Chinese invasion of 1950—three hundred or more monks from Drepung Monastery began an orderly march toward the center of Lhasa, five miles to the east. Instead of calling for independence as in previous protests, they made specific demands such as the release of five monks detained the previous October for celebrating the award in Washington of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama. They were still well outside the city center when they were stopped at a checkpoint, ringed with China’s People’s Armed Police (PAP), a special paramilitary force that deals primarily with internal dissent. Some fifty of the monks were arrested straightaway and their colleagues staged a sit-down in the street where, joined by another hundred or so monks during the afternoon, they remained for some twelve hours. A new form of protest had taken hold.

Tibetan exiles have long made the claim—denied by the Chinese government—that several hundred thousand Tibetans were killed by the Chinese between the 1950 invasion and the beginning of “liberalization and opening up” in 1979. Conditions improved markedly for several years after that, but a spate of official criticism of the Dalai Lama in 1987 led to a series of protests in Lhasa calling again for Tibetan independence. There were, according to unofficial reports I compiled during the nine years that followed, some 213 pro-independence protests in Tibet. Some 160 of these have been independently confirmed. Only five involved more than ten or twenty people in Lhasa, and four of those had escalated only when laypeople witnessed police beating the initial handful of protesters. In 1990 the police were ordered to switch from what Jiang Zemin, then Chinese Party secretary, called “passive” to “active” policing, the former meaning (crudely) that you beat or shoot protesters once they start their demonstrations, the latter that you take action against them in advance or within moments of their arrival. The authorities learned to handle these incidents within two or three minutes after they began, taking protesters out of …

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